Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Defining Gay Persons as Disordered: Catholic Roots of the Ugandan Situation

In my posting yesterday about the Ugandan situation and the scandal of Pope Benedict’s silence, I said that the deliberations about executing gays and lesbians in Uganda cast light on the diabolical edge or diabolical potential of the rhetoric used by some Christians to condemn those who are gay or lesbian. In my view, what we’re seeing in the legislation now before the Ugandan legislature is the logical, ultimate extension of many of the unfounded and malicious claims made by various Christian groups about those who are gay or lesbian—and, in particular, by those religious right and neocon political groups in the U.S. who have worked overtime to export American-style homophobia to Africa, with the blessing of Rome.

The Revisionist Attempt to Deny History of Term “Objectively Disordered”

As the “traditional” rhetoric condemning LGBT persons reveals its diabolical face in events like the Ugandan legislation, we can expect to see attempts on the part of those who have promoted this rhetoric to step back from it, to deny that they intended the logical and ultimate diabolical extension of their rhetoric represented by the Ugandan legislation, or even to deny that they have said what they are on record as saying about gay and lesbian persons. What follows deals with the latter development: as the diabolical face of Catholic anti-gay rhetoric becomes more apparent with the Ugandan legislation (and the collusion of many Catholics dioceses in the U.S. to remove the right of civil marriage from gay citizens of Maine), some right-wing Catholics in the U.S. are now seeking to disseminate disinformation about what the Catholic church has said in recent years re: gay folks, particularly about its teaching that all gay and lesbian people are “objectively disordered.”

I argued in yesterday’s posting that Benedict has a particularly strong obligation to speak out about the Ugandan situation because he is, in key respects, directly implicated in what is taking place in Uganda. The nation is slightly over 40% Catholic—it has almost the same proportion of Catholics that Germany had when the Nazis came to power, in fact. Catholics wield great political power in Uganda. A word from the pope would have tremendous import for the future of the legislation now pending in Uganda, which seeks to make homosexuality a capital crime. Just as, many of us maintain, a word from Pius XII would have had great import in Germany and other nations occupied by the Nazis, as millions of Jews (and gypsies, Slavs, mentally and physically handicapped people, gays, and others) were rounded up and murdered in the first part of the 20th century . . . .

Silence in the face of such mass evil is unthinkable. One of the lessons consistently drummed into the heads of schoolchildren in most parts of the world following the Nazi period is the never-again lesson: never again may we justify remaining silent as a nation begins to deliberate about putting a vulnerable minority group to death. After what we did in the Nazi period and what we know from that period, never again can we claim innocence when we stand by in silence as such deliberations take place. Never again can the church credibly claim to be a salvific presence in the world when it is a willing party to such evil because it remains silent as the groundwork for such evil is prepared.

Benedict is also implicated in what is taking place in Uganda because he has directly fanned the flames of anti-gay prejudice in Africa through statements he has made about the African church and African culture. Yesterday’s posting provides examples of dangerous and inflammatory statements Benedict has made, which form the context in which it has become thinkable for the people of Uganda, including Catholic people, to deliberate about putting gay persons to death.

I noted as well how the Catholic magisterium’s use of the term “objectively disordered” to define those who are gay and lesbian leads directly to the mentality evident in the current Ugandan legislation—a mentality that makes the eradication of a despised and dehumanized minority group thinkable and desirable. Benedict bears great responsibility for this particular designation. The term “objectively disordered” as a description of the human nature of gay and lesbian people is relatively new to Catholic thought. And its origins can be directly traced to Benedict in his ecclesiastical career before he became pope.

And now, as the diabolical potential of this designation of an entire group of human beings solely because of who they happen to be reveals itself in events like the Ugandan legislation—it is now thinkable for a nation over 40% Catholic to consider executing gays and for the leader of the Catholic church to remain silent as such deliberation takes place—I notice more and more Catholic apologists spreading disinformation about what the church has taught re: gay people in recent years. An attempt is underway to deny that the church has defined its gay and lesbian members as disordered in their very natures. And so I feel it is important to revisit the term “objectively disordered” or “intrinsically disordered” as designations of gay persons in recent Catholic teaching.

As quite a few scholars and theologians have noted, this term is not traditional at all, though those promoting it customarily claim to be more firmly grounded in Catholic tradition than anyone else. It is an innovation. In its present form and use, it dates, in fact, from the time in which the current pope was head of the church’s central doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Ratzinger and 1986 Letter on Pastoral Care of Gay Persons

In 1986, as head of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger issued a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Care of Homosexual Persons. This document purports to be a set of guidelines for the “pastoral” care of those who are gay and lesbian.

For many gay and lesbian Catholics and our families, friends, and supporters, however, the letter is anything but pastoral. It was issued, in fact, to squelch a number of movements in some local churches, including the U.S., to engage in more positive pastoral outreach to the LGBT community. The letter effectively ended that pastoral outreach.

Its first effect was the expulsion of a number of groups working to build pastoral bridges between the Catholic church and the LGBT community, including the organization Dignity, which found itself expelled from Catholic premises across the U.S. following the publication of the 1986 letter. Within days after the “pastoral” letter was released, one of the co-founders of this group, Jesuit priest Father John McNeill, issued a press release stating that he had been given an ultimatum by his Jesuit community either to stop ministry to LGBT persons or be dismissed from his religious order. He chose the latter option. The founders of another group with a similar mission of pastoral outreach to LGBT persons, New Ways Ministry—Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick—also found themselves silenced and disciplined by Cardinal Ratzinger in the years following the 1986 letter.

It would not be far-fetched to conclude that the ultimate effect of Ratzinger’s 1986 “pastoral” letter—its intended effect, in fact—was to create a kind of pogrom or purge in which large numbers of gay and lesbian Catholics were disappeared from the church. With this “pastoral” letter, the church had revealed its face to its LGBT children not as maternal but as diabolical. In the wake of the 1986 letter, as Dignity chapters were expelled from parish after parish in diocese after diocese, LGBT persons were, to a great extent, disappeared from Catholic parishes that had previously been working, after Vatican II, to find ways to reach out and include these members.

The quickness with which this purge was effected suggests that, along with the “pastoral” letter, dioceses received specific instructions from Rome to remove Dignity from their premises and to shun any group whose work might be construed as gay-affirming. It seems evident, given what happened following the 1986 letter, that bishops were told by Rome that they would be punished if they did not adhere to the emerging party line Cardinal Ratzinger wished, with Pope John Paul IIs blessing, to create in the Catholic church re: gay persons.

In my own city, when Dignity was removed from Catholic premises, a religious community of sisters courageously offered space for its meetings in the hospital they owned. Even so, the entire chapter of Dignity, chose to convert en masse to the far more welcoming Episcopal church. Gay faces, gay bodies, gay human beings, vanished from many Catholic communities following Ratzinger’s 1986 “pastoral” letter. Only in large cities with a concentration of LGBT people have some Catholic parishes managed to sustain visible and viable communities of gay and lesbian persons, and ministries of outreach to these persons.

Cardinal Ratzinger clearly intended this purge with his 1986 letter. It was clear not only to the LGBT community, but to Ratzinger’s strong allies on the political and religious right in the U.S. and elsewhere, that this “pastoral” letter was a shot across the bow at the incipient gay rights movement. It was a statement that, as an institution and at an official level, the Catholic church would do all in its power to stop this movement in its tracks, and to attack openly gay LGBT people whose experience of grace led them to affirm their identities as God-given.

In fact, it is clear that, in issuing the 1986 “pastoral” letter, Cardinal Ratzinger was responding to concerns expressed from some influential political (and financial) quarters that the teaching and pastoral work of the Catholic church was becoming too gay-affirming in the post-Vatican II period. Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Care of Homosexual Persons begins with statements about how an “overly benign” interpretation of homosexuality began to grow following a 1975 CDF document “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.”

Among those pressing Rome to hold the line on gay people were influential Catholic groups in the U.S. with ties to highly placed, well-heeled donors, both Catholic and non-Catholic, with a neoconservative political agenda that gave a high profile to opposition to gay rights and support of “traditional family values.In issuing a pastoral letter whose effect was not to welcome, include, or provide authentic pastoral outreach to LGBT people, but to remove LGBT people from Catholic communities, Cardinal Ratzinger was also allying the church, at an institutional level, with the political right, from which many of the complaints about an “overly benign” attitude towards gay people were emanating.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 Pastoral Letter and Definition of Gay People as Disordered

Central to Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Care of Homosexual Persons was a term new to the Catholic tradition, which defined not only homosexual acts, but homosexual people, as “objectively disordered”—as disordered in their very nature, in their constitution as human beings, in their personhood. As the 1986 pastoral letter maintains, when the CDF’s 1975 “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” defined homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” without connecting the acts done by gay persons to the nature of gay persons, it implied a certain neutrality re: the condition of being gay.

It is that neutrality that Ratzinger wishes to correct in his 1986 statement, by connecting the dots between homosexual acts and homosexual persons: gay people do disordered acts because gay people are disordered. The disorder of the act flows from the disorder in the nature of those doing the acts. As Ratzinger states,

Explicit treatment of the problem [confronting Catholic pastoral responses to gay persons] was given in this Congregation's "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics" of December 29, 1975. That document stressed the duty of trying to understand the homosexual condition and noted that culpability for homosexual acts should only be judged with prudence. At the same time the Congregation took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being "intrinsically disordered", and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, #4).

In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”: to be gay is not in and of itself sinful. But to be gay is to experience an inclination that is “more a or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” And therefore this inclination is itself an “objective disorder.”

Disordered homosexual acts express and confirm something inherent in the disordered nature of homosexual persons. As the “pastoral” letter notes at a later point,

This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.

As it deals with the question of discrimination and violence against LGBT persons, the letter hammers away again at the message that being gay is, in and of itself, a “disorder,” and one ought not to use sympathy for the human rights of LGBT persons as an excuse for denying the disorder that these persons bear in their very nature:

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”; when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent”; “the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered.”

These are astonishing claims, and exceptionally dangerous ones, claims that lead to maleficent social consequences. They fly in the face of abundant, incontrovertible psychological evidence that a gay sexual orientation is not unnatural or disordered, but is a naturally occurring psychological phenomenon, one to which moral judgment cannot justifiably be attached in the absence of evidence that those born with such an orientation are ipso facto psychologically or morally defective. With its language about “objective disorder,” the 1986 “pastoral” letter counters the growing consensus of all professionally respected psychological and medical associations that a homosexual orientation is not disordered or sick—that LGBT persons are not defective human beings.

And it counters that consensus without offering any evidence at all for its judgment that being gay is a disorder, or without consulting the experience of those who are gay or lesbian. It imposes, unilaterally and without compelling evidence, a value judgment on the very fact of being gay, which reinforces (and justifies) ugly prejudice against those who happen to be LGBT.

This is, of course, why many gay Catholics politely exited the Catholic church and/or distanced ourselves from it in the period after 1986—even as we were given strong signals, by the purge the “pastoral” letter began, that our exodus was very much to the liking of the pastoral authorities of the church. As many commentators on Ratzinger’s Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Care of Homosexual Persons have noted, the language of objective disorder is in and of itself violent: it assaults the dignity and the personal worth of those who are gay or lesbian.

And in doing so, it provides a linguistic (and a religious) basis for acts of outright violence against those who are LGBT. The letter immediately effected a purge within the Catholic church in which gay faces, gay bodies, and gay persons became invisible in—were disappeared from—Catholic communities.

There is a straight line between Cardinal Ratzinger’s language defining LGBT human beings as disordered, and the violence we now see being mulled over by the Ugandan legislature. There is a straight line from Cardinal Ratzinger’s language of disorder to Pope Benedict’s silence, as Uganda considers executing people solely because they are gay.

Ratzinger’s language of objective disorder has now entered Catholic teaching at an official magisterial level. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (¶ 2358) states,

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

This inclination, which is objectively disordered: we have sympathy and compassion for you, as you carry your cross. We resist discrimination against you.

But remember that you are disordered. Because we tell you so. Because we have defined you as disordered. Without seeking your own contributions as we define you (and demean you and dismiss you and make you invisible and susceptible to violence).

It almost seems that the process of defining an entire group of human beings as disordered without any contribution from that group being so defined, and without any reference to an overwhelming body of empirical evidence which flatly contradicts your definition, entirely undercuts your claim to have compassion and sensitivity, doesn’t it? Or to be concerned about pastoral outreach? Or to be opposed to discrimination?

The Current Argument to Deny Implications of the Term “Objective Disorder”

And here’s what’s happening now, as the diabolical potential of this rhetoric of objective disorder reveals itself in the Ugandan legislation (and in the collusion of one U.S. Catholic diocese after another to remove a civil right from a minority group, and in the bullying threats of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to shut down ministries for the poor unless that jurisdiction removes a civil right from a minority group): as all this is now taking place, Catholic apologists who wish to disguise the role that the term “objective disorder” has played in these ugly political actions now wish to claim that the Catholic church defines all kinds of other things as objectively disordered.

It is now not uncommon to read that the term “objectively disordered” is not applied unilaterally to LGBT people in Catholic teaching, but to many acts that are intrinsically evil, because they do not fulfill the “order” to which nature orients them.

This apologia, of course, entirely (and, in my view, deliberately) misses the point: the term “objective disorder” is not applied in Catholic teaching to any group of human beings other than those who are gay or lesbian. It may well be true that the term “objective disorder” has come to be used to describe various acts regarded by church teaching as sinful.

But in the case of those who are gay or lesbian, the Catholic church took a fateful step with Ratzinger’s 1986 “pastoral” letter that it has not taken with any other group of human beings: the church argues from the act it wishes to define as disordered to a definition of the human beings performing that act as disordered. In their personhood. In their constitution. In their nature. In their humanity.

Gay people perform disordered sexual acts. The people performing such disordered acts must be disordered in and of themselves, if they perform such acts. The disorder of the act points back to the disorder within the nature of those doing the acts. This the logic of Catholic teaching about homosexuality, in Ratzinger's 1986 pastoral letter.

The Catholic church does not apply a similar logic to heterosexual people performing “disordered” sexual acts. Heterosexual people are not defined as disordered in Catholic teaching, because they perform disordered sexual acts.

Catholic teaching wishes to maintain that any sexual act which is not open to the possibility of procreation is disordered, because it fails to remain open to the procreative purpose for which nature and God have designed human sexuality. I think one can safely say that the vast majority of heterosexual people who engage in sexual activities do so for the overwhelming majority of their adult lives, in the overwhelming majority of cases in which they engage in erotic activity, without intending to procreate. Procreation—the so-called “order” that apologists for Catholic natural-law thinking believe is self-evident to any rational, thinking person, as the goal of all human sexuality and every sexual act—is not, I daresay, the primary reason the vast majority of heterosexual people engage in sexual activity.

In fact, I think that there is abundant and incontrovertible evidence that, in the vast majority of cases, for the vast majority of heterosexual people engaging in sexual activity, there is the strong hope and determination that procreation not be the outcome of the sexual act in question.

On the basis of this overwhelming evidence that most heterosexual people actively, purposefully, and with full intent engage in sexual activity for much of their lives hoping not to procreate, does the Catholic church conclude that heterosexual people are therefore “objectively disordered”—disordered in their nature, personhood, constitution, humanity? It does not.

Even when overwhelming evidence points to the “disorder” of almost all heterosexual activity within the biologistic framework of Catholic natural law teaching, the Catholic church does not take the fateful step of defining heterosexual people as disordered, on the basis of this evidence. It takes that step only and exclusively in the case of those who are gay and lesbian.

As the legislation now pending before the Ugandan legislature demonstrates, authority figures set forth on a fateful path, indeed, when they begin to use language like “objectively disordered” about a vulnerable minority group. Designating any group of human beings as human in a way that differs from what makes others human, as less human, in fact, because the humanity of members of that group is flawed, has consistently been, throughout history, a recipe for violence against the group so stigmatized. Such stigmatizing definitions of minority groups are especially potent when they are crafted and promoted by religious authority figures.

It is impossible to address the Ugandan situation, in which a nation with a population nearly 90% Christian is now considering the death penalty for LGBT persons, without paying attention to the religious roots from which the thought of eradicating gay people from a society arises. It is impossible to address what is taking place in Uganda today without adverting to the Catholic religious roots of the Ugandan situation, given the
fact that Catholics constitute over 40% of the nation's population.

It is impossible to examine what is taking place in Uganda with any thoroughness without paying attention to the fateful decision of the man who is now pope to issue a pastoral letter in 1986 defining every gay or lesbian human being in the world as disordered.

Why does Benedict continue to be silent about Uganda? Because breaking his silence could call into question what he wishes to teach about his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And because it would call for serious soul-searching on the part of the institution he leads about what that religious institution has been doing to its gay members, and to gay people throughout the world, in a period of its history in which the current pope has wielded tremendous power to set the course of that institution for the future.

P.S. I have deliberately refrained from linking here to the abundant scholarly research that can be cited to corroborate my statements about recent Catholic teaching re: LGBT persons. My goal with this and other theological reflections I publish on Bilgrimage is to open theological conversations to those who may not have formal training in the field of theology, but who nonetheless have significant theological insights and who engage in theological reflection in a non-academic way within non-academic cultural contexts. In my view, such theology is extremely important and academic theologians do not do nearly enough to promote conversation at popular and non-academic levels.

For those seeking links to scholarly research about these issues, I highly recommend two blogs linked to this blog, Michael Bayly's Wild Reed and Terry Weldon's Queering the Church. On their homepages, both have extremely helpful links to a wealth of literature and documentation about the issues discussed above. And both Michael and Terry publish insightful, theologically significant analysis of these issues on a regular basis, with strong documentation.